Happy Postdocs : Not An Oxymoron
Disclaimer: I have no direct experience with postdocs in biomedical or other life sciences fields. My point of view derives entirely from experiences in the physical sciences.
Context: In the physical science academic niche with which I am familiar, postdoctoral fellowships are desirable, respected positions. Doing a (successful) postdoc gives the additional experience needed to make the transition from being a student to being a professor at a research university.
My experience: Aside from a few harassment issues I could have done without, I was happy as a postdoc. I enjoyed the responsibility, respect, and higher salary, and, although I had a lot of freedom in my research as a grad student, I felt even freer as a postdoc because I finally had the time and ability to develop some of my own research ideas at a more intellectually satisfying level.
Nevertheless, being a postdoc is not 24/7 good times. To help examine some of the pros and cons, let's compare the professional lives of postdocs and assistant professors:
Job security: Although some postdocs (or equivalent positions) have a contract of a similar duration as that of an assistant professor before tenure evaluation, postdocs live with more uncertainty about whether all these years of training will lead to the career they want. Although most postdocs who do well in my field ultimately get a faculty position if they want one, you never know. And, more typically, postdoc contracts are only for 1-2 years. Assistant professors may have some anxious years before tenure evaluation time, but they can achieve job security with tenure. Assistant professors clearly have the advantage in this respect.
Salary: Assistant professors typically make more than postdocs, although the difference narrows for more senior postdocs. In addition, assistant professors with significant postdoctoral experience can typically negotiate a higher starting salary, so the postdoctoral years 'count' in determination of future salary.
In what might be a rare situation, a former postdoc of mine recently took a pay cut (to $48k) when moving to a teaching position at a small university. He wanted a teaching-focused job, but was worried that the lower salary would make life more difficult for his family of four (his is the only income), but, when he asked me for advice, I said that I hoped he would take the job anyway because of the career opportunity and potential future job security. He did, and so far he is doing fine and is very happy in his new job.
Assistant professors in general have an advantage over postdocs with respect to salary, but not in all cases.
Benefits: In my field, health insurance benefits are typically similar for both postdocs and professors, but situations vary from institution to institution regarding whether the institution/PI contribute to retirement benefits. Some institutions make no retirement contributions for postdocs or assistant professors in the first year or two; some contribute to the retirement funds of assistant professors but not of postdocs; and others contribute to both. I am currently contributing to the retirement fund of a postdoc, as are many of my colleagues for their postdocs, so it certainly does happen. This factor works out about equally for postdocs and assistant professors in the institutions/departments with which I am familiar.
Independence: This one varies a lot. Many of us had a lot of independence as postdocs to pursue the research we wanted, but others are mostly/entirely confined to doing a project conceived and directed by a PI. Assistant professors have freedom to take the lead on research projects, although with that freedom comes a lot more responsibility (and management tasks) than postdocs typically have to deal with.
I think this factor is comparable for postdocs and assistant professors. There are certainly very controlling PIs who restrict the independence of postdocs, but there are also assistant professors whose research topics are constrained by various factors.
Time: Many of us think back on our postdoctoral experiences as the time in our academic careers when we had the most uninterrupted time to focus on research. One colleague of mine says that, for him, being a postdoc was even better than having a sabbatical (without the career anxiety, I suppose) because the professional service expectations and time spent managing grants and people was so much less.
According to that postdoc world view, postdocs are fortunate because they are not afflicted with the stresses of being a student (exams, classes) and typically doesn't have to do the same kind of professorial time management feat of balancing research, teaching, advising, managing, service etc. As a postdoc, you may help mentor grad students or undergrads in a research group, and you may also manage your own grant and start to be asked to review manuscripts and reviews, but all of this ramps up to a higher level when you become a professor. That's part of why spending time as a postdoc is a good transitional experience between being a student and a professor.
As a postdoc, I definitely felt anxious about the future. There were very few academic jobs in my field at that time, and I was very aware that I might not get one of those few.
Nevertheless, I was doing what I wanted to be doing. I enjoyed the intellectual freedom and the unrestricted time to think and write and do research. I was relieved to be taken (a bit) more seriously as a scientist than I had been as a grad student, and I enjoyed starting to gain visibility and build connections in my field. I was not ready to start a faculty position at a research university directly after finishing my PhD, but my postdoc time, followed by a teaching position, gave me the experience I needed once I was fortunate enough to get a tenure-track job.
Postdocs win in the 'time' category.
Summary: Being a postdoc has its stresses, even in the best of systems, but there are also very positive aspects of being a postdoc. Many faculty take seriously their jobs as mentors of postdocs, and many postdocs use well their year (or two or three) of research experience to launch their subsequent careers.
Happy postdocs exist. That fact doesn't help those who are in a postdoctoral form of hell; some fields clearly need to reform their postdoctoral systems. Nevertheless, I think it is important to present a positive case for postdocs, at least in some of the physical sciences, and to stop equating all postdoctoral fellowships with all the worst aspects of academia.
6 months ago